Investigation: Norfolk airport sidestepped safety advice

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Norfolk, Va. - For at least three years, wildlife experts have urged officials at Norfolk International Airport to make the field less attractive to large and dangerous birds, but documents show the airport leaders have not embraced all the recommendations.

The experts have said in several reports that the ponds and tall trees near the main runway attract heavy waterfowl and large birds of prey, like hawks and eagles. At the same time, Federal Aviation Administration records show the number of bird strikes is going up at Norfolk International. Wildlife officials also recently noted that after years of declines, the population of birds at the airport classified as dangerous to airplanes is rising.

The airport is home to several species of birds that, because of their size and weight, are classified as high threats to airliners. Records show that around two or three times a month, birds and planes collide near the runways. Most of the birds are small, and most jets can shake off such collisions. But records show some of the collisions have been costly. FAA reports show large birds can cripple a jet's engines, damage its control surfaces or hurt pilots.

Worries about airplane collisions with birds sparked the city's removal of a bald eagles' nest at neighboring Botanical Garden. It was one of the items recommended in the airport's wildlife assessment, but the move sparked protests and the formation of a group called "Eagle On Alliance." The alliance fought unsuccessfully to save the nest.

"Our argument from the first day was that the airport wasn't doing its job," said Carol Senechal, founder of the group.

Documents obtained by NewsChannel 3 under the Freedom of Information Act show while the city tore down the eagles' nest at a cost of $40,000, airport officials took no action on recommendations to remove ponds and perching trees from the airport itself. Bird counts at the airport noted only a handful of bald eagles in the area, but more than a thousand heavy and dangerous birds like the Canada goose and the Double-crested cormorant.

The airport's most recent wildlife recommendations includes statements like: "Removal of these ponds would eliminate a major attraction to waterfowl. One of these ponds has been used by Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks as an area for preying on waterfowl ..." The report also says, "Trees and other structures used for perching on the airport which can be removed should be removed."

Airport officials conceded that has not been done.

"We intend to," airport operations director Steven Sterling told NewsChannel 3. "What I am saying is we have included that in a long-term goal."

The long-term goal is a new parallel runway first proposed about a decade ago. Sterling said building it would mean removing the ponds and trees that repeatedly appear in the airport's wildlife reports as key attractants for dangerous birds. But Sterling said the runway plan is still being studied, and conceded it is not a certainty.

The report also says a city-owned canal that cuts directly in front of a runway also attracts dangerous birds into the path of airplanes. The ditch, called "Denny's Canal," links two city reservoirs that provide drinking water. The public-utilities canal is as much as 75-feet wide and eight feet deep. Senechal, from Eagle On Alliance, said she and volunteers have seen and videotaped Bald Eagles using the canal as a source of fish. She said one of the eagles that was killed had been sitting on a runway with a fish when a jet landed on it.

Senechal said the city had no business tearing down the eagles' nest when city workers and airport officials haven't done anything with Denny's Canal, the ponds, or the trees on the airport property itself.

"There are so many more things that could be done here because nothing has been done here," she said.

City spokeswoman Lori Crouch said the city has no plans to do anything with Denny's Canal. She said it would not be "practical or advisable" to alter the canal, but when asked what that meant or who had decided that, she would not say. NewsChannel 3 asked for a city official to say -- on camera and on the record -- why nothing could be done with the canal to improve airport safety, but Crouch said no one from the city would address that question.

Meanwhile, Sterling and other airport officials are now moving forward to make the airfield safer. After an initial meeting with NewsChannel 3 to hear our questions, Sterling and the airport's executive director, Wayne Shank, agreed the questions about the airport's ponds and trees were fair. Sterling said they are now trying to figure out if they can remove the ponds and trees without violating wetlands rules. And he said officials need to know if getting rid of the ponds would affect how the airfield drains in storms.

Sterling said in the next wildlife assessment, he expects records to show even more dangerous birds on the property. He said he doesn't know if that's because more birds have moved in, or that researchers are more vigorous in their documentation.

As for the eagles, the city's plan appears to have backfired. The most recent assessment noted: "Eagles are becoming more abundant in the area around" the airport.

Related: 

Read the 2014 ORF Report

Read ORF Strike Data

17 comments

  • Barbara Melton

    It has been easy and convenient for the Airport to blame a pair of Eagles for their negligence… as the City Council and the Airport were told by EOA and Wildlife Experts, if you run the Eagles out, more Eagles will come because this pair is not there to defend their territory… they have not listened to the experts and now they have more birds… go figure… why does Richmond Airport which is near the James River and many nesting Eagles not have this problem… because they do proper wildlife mitigation… many Airports across the Nation use border collies appropriately to clear their runways…. Why is Norfolk Airport run by such incompetent individuals??? SHUT IT DOWN!!! Newport News can handle the slight overflow it might create..

  • Craig Sprinkle

    “Sterling said they are now trying to figure out if they can remove the ponds and trees without violating wetlands rules” If adding a parallel runway is in future ORF plans, shouldn’t the wetlands investigation already be in the works?

    • Barbara Melton

      They are doing what they do…… side stepping the issue by making up stuff…. indeed this should have already be in the works….. I hope they do not increase the size of this Airport… They have lost business over the past few years and maybe should just shut down and let the Newport News Airport handle the overflow…. it won’t be that much…

  • K Lark

    The eagles kept a lot of eagles and other such birds away because eagles are territorial. However when they started trying to chase off the eagles from The Gardens they also encouraged other eagles to try to nest in this area. So once again NORF has failed.

  • Lynn Gillingham

    The $40,000 removal of the resident eagles’ nest from NBG has only allowed more birds to move into the area as airport officials are finding out. Airport officials were told that eagle’s are territorial and reduce the number of birds coming into airport area. Airport officials didn’t listen to wildlife experts and now are faced with a much larger bird problem than two eagles.

  • Carol Senechal, Eagle On Alliance

    Thank you Mike Mather. This is a discussion we have been trying to have for three years. All of our research returned the same answer – the Airport was not doing its job on Airport property. Your research led you to the same conclusion. Thank you again, and please stay on this story.

  • Dan

    I saw a jetliner fly right through a pack of birds on takeoff out of Norfolk
    this morning about 7:15 a.m. It disappeared into the clouds, and the birds
    continued on. Just a matter of time now.

  • Norma Seifrit

    Mike, thank you so much for looking into this story, and for saying what EOA has said all along, that the airport is not doing it’s job to keep the airport safe for all the passengers who fly into and out of Norfolk. They destroyed the eagles’ nests and chased them off, which only encourages more eagles and other birds to move in. If they had only listened to the experts in the very beginning, this wouldn’t be the problem it is today. Keep up the good reporting!!

  • Darlene McNulty

    Make the eagles leave & it will be safer for the flying public. That didn’t work! The question remains did spending $40,000 dealing with the eagles make it safer… answer NO! Back to the drawing board & this time pay attention to the experts & really do something that will make it safer for the flying public, pilots, private aircraft, & anything else that flies in & out of the Norfolk Airport without feathers.
    Mike Mather, thanks for the research & this report. Maybe NOW something constructive will be done.

  • Sidney Burr

    Thank you Mike Mather for doing a much needed in-depth investigative report by the media to expose the truth concerning the ineptness of the Airport management in controlling wildlife through a proper mitigation plan. For several years the airport was provided with a list of possible improvements, but they paid no attention. Now, the resident eagles have finally built a nest outside NBG, safe on private property, probably never to return to nest again at the NBG, leaving that prime area open for other eagles to seek a place to nest, exactly what the airport was warned would happen if they removed that first nest. Hopefully your investigation will cause the airport to look where it should have in the beginning – on its own property and at its poor wildlife mitigation plan.

  • Chris Sjolund

    Thank you WTKR for the courage in speaking the truth. Norfolk Airport and some on City Council cannot continue to “bully” the public with false statements and lies.

    • For the birds

      The courage to speak the truth about some dumb birds? Ha, now that’s funny. Oh the courage . . . . .Hopefully someone with the proper courage will spread some highly concentrated pesticide around the area to eliminate these pests.

  • DieselEMD

    Complain about endangered animals or ruining the enviroment, then complain about the means used to control fowl hazards to airplanes. Someone make up their mines what they want.

Comments are closed.

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